MOTHER AND THE WHORE, THE (La Maman et la Putain)

(director/writer/editor: Jean Eustache; cinematographers: Michel Cenet/Pierre Lhomme; editor: Denise de Casabianca; cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud (Alexandre), Bernadette Lafont (Marie), Françoise Lebrun (Veronika), Isabelle Weingarten (Gilberte), Jacques Renard (friend of Alexandre); Runtime: 210; Films Du Losange/Elite Films-Cine Qua Non-simar Films; 1973-France)
“The film is a most revealing study of how women look at men, especially men who think they are real smoothies.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Having lived through and somehow survived the cultural revolutions of the late ’60s and early ’70s American style, I was not fully aware of what the French upheaval was all about except to notice that there was more of an identification over there between the working-class and intellectuals and not the same usage of hallucinogenic drugs and amount of anti-Vietnam protests that was sweeping the American landscape. I was therefore most interested that this film tackled the subject of revolution totally by looking through the eyes of sexual change by following the trail of a professional idler, in his late 20s, Alexandre (Léaud). He is someone who manages not to work, own an apartment or possess many material things. He does this by living off the women he has affairs with. They supply him with food, an apartment to share, clothes, and, even some money.

We first meet Alexandre as he arrives at the Sorbonne to get confirmation that his relationship is all over with the coed who just dumped him for another man, Gilberte (Isabelle). She tells him it is definitely over between them, she is marrying another. Alexandre pleads his case, professing his love for her, cunningly trying to win her back but to no avail. We subsequently learn that Gilberte was a virgin when he met her; and, even though, he treated her badly, he still believes he loves her very much. Despondent with her decision, he comes out of the bohemian café he hangs out in, Deux Magots, and eyes this very attractive blonde. His pick up line is, “I don’t have time to have a drink with you but can I have your telephone number.” This girl turns out to be Veronika (Lebrun), who is the whore of the story. She’s a Slavic nurse in her 20s, and someone who professes a dire need to have casual sex with as many offers as she can entertain, especially, enjoying it with exotic outsiders like Jews and Arabs. Going on to tell Alexandre that her relationships don’t last too long, but that men are very attracted to her because she has a big ass, nice breasts, a sensual mouth, and when she wears makeup her eyes appear very sexy. Alexandre chimes in, that he also likes her when she smiles.

Alexandre returns to the apartment he shares with his lover, the mother of the story, the 30ish, well-endowed boutique owner, Marie (Lafont), who in real-life was the ex-lover of the director of the film. She has never acted before, but has a strong sexual presence in this film. She has an open relationship with Alexandre where he feels that he must tell her everything about what he does, including about his new lady friend.

After we see how rakish and supposedly cool Alexandre is and hear his amusing rantings about life, philosophy and love (he sure loves to talk nonstop), we also discover that he has a double-standard about sex. He is not so free and easy when it comes to having his women folk do the same thing he does to them.

This “take me seriously” three-and-a-half-hour film is surprisingly never dull, and is always diverting and titillating in its sexual characterization of these three rather likable and vulnerable participants in experimental living. We follow the relationship over a few weeks grow between Veronika and him. And, with his sharing a bed with Marie. She will later on attempt to commit suicide, but is stopped by Alexandre. We are treated to hearing one of the best “I am a whore” speeches I ever heard, as Veronika fesses up to wanting to be loved. She says that sex is really nothing to her, even though she enjoys coming the maximum number of times (she has some kind of thing about saying maximum whenever she can). She also says that she is not ashamed that she is free enough to go to bed with whomever she desires, claiming that she is better than the hypocrite housewife who dreams of screwing the plumber — but never acts on her desire.

Confessions and half-baked philosophies come pouring out at the drop of a fancy scarf. Alexandre boldly states he can’t love a woman who doesn’t love him. While Marie demands that she could have other relationships also, just like he does. With all the so-called sexual freedom they have, it is discernible that there seems to be a lot of tension around them, making one wonder really if they are enjoying themselves more than their bourgeoisie counterparts are.

Alexandre’s male friend (Renard), also, an idler is quite a zany character who is hanging out at the same cafes Alexandre frequents. He shows a keen interest in Nazism as a form of cultural nostalgia. He is seen wheeling his able bodied self around in his apartment in a wheelchair stolen from a cripple.

All the quirkiness and nonsensical palaver of childish 1970s rebellion is seen here along with a strong sense of connecting with others of the similar mind-set, allowing sex to be the liberating experience that it should be for them.

The film culminates with Alexandre forcing himself into making a choice between the two women who love him, and choosing the more youthful blonde when she is at her most vulnerable. He asks Veronika to marry him as she is vomiting into a bucket, as the scene fades out with him sitting in her apartment. This is not your typical Hollywood romantic happy ending.

It is worth noting that the director of this seminal work, Jean Eustache, killed himself at the age of 42, in 1981; and, that, certainly some parts of this film were based on his real-life experiences.

The acting is superb. Léaud is the boyish charmer who is self-absorbed, prattling on and on about himself and what he thinks he knows about life. At all times he acts the part of the compulsive sex freak. The only thing that is impressive about his intellect was that he is often seen carrying a book by Proust under his arms, which is bookmarked to the story about “The Captive.” All the women are special, making us look at their bodies as well as at their minds. From this film’s take on sex, I see very little differences between the 1973 sexual mores and the 1999 ones.

The film is a most revealing study of how women look at men, especially men who think they are real smoothies. It also indicates that women often choose these smoothies over other men because they like to play games with men and feel comfortable around such difficult men to handle.

This film shows only a few signs of its age. I think that the filmmaker could do no wrong, every gesture and endless chat seemed so terribly right.